Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Stories of Never Letting Go

'Kim Stanley Robinson' really ought to be an anagram of 'kat among the pigeons' because he has rustled a few feathers this week with his article entitled Science fiction: The stories of now in The New Statesman...

"Oh, I know there is a Booker prize," he says, "I've heard of it even in California - supposedly given to the best fiction published in the Commonwealth every year - but [...] they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels."

" need the literature of your time. You can't get the meaning of our life in 2009 from historical fiction, nor from science alone. Novels serve us, and are treasured, because we want meaning, and fiction is where meaning is created."

Mr. Nail meet Mr. Hammerhead.

More contentiously he suggests that "three or four of the last 10 Booker prizes should have gone to science fiction novels the juries hadn't read."

And he names names: claiming that Air by Geoff Ryman should have won in 2005, when the prize went to The Sea by John Banville; Life by Gwyneth Jones rather than The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst the year before, and Signs of Life by M. John Harrison instead of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy in 1997.

I haven't read any of those three science fiction novels, but I have read the three prizewinners and I would be reluctant to go out to bat for any of them. Indeed, I would have given the 1997 prize to Quarantine by Jim Crace and the 2004 prize to Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I would be even less inclined to defend The Gathering or The White Tiger as being the best novels of the last two years, and I'm quite surprised he couldn't find any science fiction novels to prefer for those years as well.

As for this year, he says that the prize "should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts." Although, ironically, Yellow Blue Tibia is set in the Soviet Union in 1946 and 1986, and Adam Roberts is a Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature in the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London.

In response, John Mullan, the academic judge on this year's panel (and a Professor of English at University College, London) said: "Science fiction can go and fuck itself." No, not really, but - given that the Booker Prize has traditionally thrived on controversy - he might as well have. What he actually said was that he was "not aware of science fiction," calling it a "self-enclosed world" now kept "in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other." I'm surprised he didn't mention the beep-beep noises. Or capes.

It's true that science fiction has been ghettoized - as have various other genres (a pain when you are trying to find a transgenre book and have to search several different places in the library or bookshop) but that is just a sign of popularity. Bookshops have no Booker Prize section - indeed some old winners aren't even stocked at all - because there is no demand; no public interest. On a recent edition of the BBC2 quiz show Pointless, contestants were challenged to name a Man Booker Prize winning author. One of the contestants managed to pull the name Naipaul from the vaguest depths of his memory and thereby won the jackpot because none of the hundred people surveyed had named Naipaul, thus making him one of the winning 'pointless' answers. He wasn't the only one. Other winners who registered nul points in the public memory included: Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, Arundhati Roy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt and (read it and weep) twice-winner, and possibly soon-to-be three-time winner: JM Coetzee. That's right, none of the hundred people asked connected his, or any of those other illustrious names, with the Booker Prize.

Maybe there should be a Meta-Fiction Prize where the winners of all these best book of the year prizes are pitted against each other: The Booker, The Orange, The Whitbread, The IMPAC plus genre prizes like the Gold Dagger, Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo awards etc. to guarantee some diversity in the mix. Perhaps with Richard & Judy chairing the judges, although it might have to be over the dead bodies of academics like John Mullan.

Oh, and let's not forget prizes for literature aimed at young people - like the Carnegie Medal and Booktrust Teenage Prize - because, as Patrick Ness said recently: "Teenage writing is the place to be writing these days ... It's where the exciting writing is going on and there's no snobbery about genre."

And, having read his 2008 Booktrust Prize winning novel The Knife of Never Letting Go, I wouldn't want to argue with him - he might be capable of anything.

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